Starr County politician who pleaded guilty in Weslaco water treatment plant bribery case dead at 54

7 months 1 week 1 day ago Saturday, November 14 2020 Nov 14, 2020 November 14, 2020 6:49 PM November 14, 2020 in News - Local

Leonel J. Lopez Jr., a powerful Starr County politician who pleaded guilty in a major Rio Grande Valley corruption case, died Saturday. He was 54.

Lopez died on Saturday, according to a source who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the situation.

“It’s a surprise for everyone, for all of us,” said Rio Grande City school board President Eleazar Velasquez Jr. 

Former Rio Grande City Mayor Ruben Villarreal also heard about Lopez’s death on Saturday.

“I can’t say much about this except that we are all God’s children and when He calls us home we must go,” Villarreal said.

Members of the Lopez family couldn’t immediately be reached for comment Saturday afternoon.

Lopez played a major role in Starr County politics.

During his lengthy political career, Lopez served on the Rio Grande City school board, presided over the Rio Grande City municipal court and worked part-time for state Rep. Ryan Guillen.

In March 2019, though, Lopez made a stunning confession in federal court: He had accepted more than $4 million in bribes from engineering companies.

Lopez pocketed more than $2.5 million. He paid the remainder to middlemen, who bribed members of the Weslaco City Commission to steer more than $50 million in contracts to the engineering companies, according to federal court records.

Three former members of the City Commission — John Cuellar, David Fox and Gerardo "Jerry" Tafolla — pleaded guilty.

Federal prosecutors also secured indictments against the alleged middlemen: former Hidalgo County Precinct 1 Commissioner A.C. Cuellar, Rio Grande City school board Trustee Daniel J. Garcia and businessman Ricardo "Rick" Quintanilla.

They pleaded not guilty.

Lopez struck a deal with prosecutors and pleaded guilty to federal program bribery in March 2019.

After the plea, he remained a player in local politics and started working for Starr County.

Lopez is survived by his sons and grandchildren. His wife of more than 30 years, Leticia O. Lopez, died on Nov. 8.

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